The Browns visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday with both teams looking to firmly assert their positions in the AFC playoff picture. The Patriots have recovered from a sluggish start to the season having won 4 of their last 5, including three in a row. With a win, the Patriots would stay a half-game back of the Bills for the division lead. While continuing to send shivers through the rest of the NFL.
The Browns are 2-3 in their last five and currently sit ninth in the AFC playoff picture. The Browns are hoping they righted the ship in a 41-16 thrashing of the Bengals last week. A win for them on Sunday would legitimize their aspirations of being a threat for the postseason and help wash away the taste of an inconsistent start to the season.
Going into the Game
The Pats put themselves in a poor spot early in the season and have been climbing out of it ever since. Every game has felt like a big one as the Pats face top teams week in and week out. They announced their return two weeks ago against the Chargers and ground out a hard-fought win last week against a feisty Panthers team. Another win Sunday would cement their status as an AFC top dog.
Despite the recent winning streak, the Pats are still facing questions. Outside of the two games against the Jets, the Pats offense is averaging 21.5 points which is further inflated by two defensive touchdowns over the past two weeks. Counterpoint? The Chargers and Panthers feature two of the best pass defenses in the NFL. Both rank in the top six in passing defense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).
The Pats defense has also feasted on weaker competition thus far this year. Against teams with 1-4 wins, the defense is allowing 12.8 points per game, 298.8 yards per game, averaging 2.4 takeaways per game, and have an opposing passer TD:INT ratio of 5:10. Against teams with 5 or more wins the numbers paint a different picture; 26.5 points per game, 392.3 yards per game, on average a single takeaway per game, and a TD:INT ratio of 7:3. While troubling, the defense has been jelling as of late and playing top-level ball since facing off against TB12 on Sunday Night Football.
However you want to slice this game, injuries will play a part. Both teams will likely be missing key contributors. Running backs on both sides may be absent as Patriots Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson deal with concussions. The Browns will be without top backs Nick Chubb (COVID) and Kareem Hunt (IR-calf). The Browns are also facing injuries along their offensive line with starting RT Jack Conklin on IR. Starting C JC Tretter a late addition to the injury report this week with a knee ailment. In a repeat of previous weeks, this will be a knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out affair that promises to be low scoring and bring fans back to a brand of football rarely seen in today’s pass-happy league. Without further ado, the breakdown is presented in “Who has the advantage when…” format.
Patriots Pass the Ball
It’s been mentioned many times in this column but the Patriots’ passing game starts with protecting Mac Jones. Last week his play fell off as the Panthers got pressure. Successful defense starts with the marriage of pass rush and coverage and the Browns are exceptionally good at getting pressure. They have the second-best pressure rate in the league despite blitzing on only 20.8% of opponents’ dropbacks. Myles Garrett continues to be a complete force, pacing the team with 12.5 sacks. The team totals 27 sacks, also good for second in the league despite the next highest single sack total belonging to Jadeveon Clowney with 3.5 sacks.
The passing attack sputtered last week against an aggressive and fast front seven. The task doesn’t get any easier against a similar group in Cleveland. The Pats will be able to take advantage of the Browns’ aggressive linebackers in coverage with screens and play action. Multiple times against the Bengals last week, the Browns’ LB’s vacated the short intermediate middle field on hard play action. That is Mac’s comfort zone and if he can get cooking there, the offense will have success through the air. The Browns feature primarily zone coverage, something Mac and the Pats’ offensive concepts usually exploit. None of it matters if the hog mollies upfront doesn’t keep Mac upright.
Patriots Run the Ball
The Pats face a challenge before even stepping on the field Sunday as the health of both Harris and Stevenson is questionable for the game. If the two lead backs can’t go, the Pats would be left with Brandon Bolden and JJ Taylor to shoulder the load. According to reports, Stevenson has a better chance at returning than Harris. If the Pats do enter the game with only two active backs on the roster, it would not be surprising to see Jonnu Smith getting snaps out of the backfield ala Cordarrelle Patterson 2018.
The Browns feature the third-best run defense according to DVOA. The Pats rushing game had its best single-game output last week against a similar style defense. The Browns feature much more talent along their defensive front, which may make having success on the ground a much different task. The Pats would be wise to utilize some misdirection plays and counters with pulling guard action in hopes of taking advantage of the Browns’ aggressive style. This has the makings of running to keep the defense honest and set up play-action rather than running due to success.
Browns Pass the Ball
It all starts with the tight ends in the Cleveland passing game. The two leading receivers in terms of catches on the Browns roster are tight ends David Njoku and Austin Hooper. This grouping is the engine that drives the Browns passing game. The Browns also utilize “13” personnel (one running back, three tight ends) at an absurd rate. They lead the league with 129 plays ran from “13” personnel, the next closest team, the Titans, has 52. Belichick has also been harping on the fact the Browns are one of few teams that regularly run tight end screens throughout the game. The Patriots are uniquely set to defend this grouping with utility safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips skill sets provide the defense favorable matchups. Not many teams roster hybrids of this pedigree, something the Browns have been able to take advantage of but probably stops this week.
When the Browns do go outside in the passing game it isn’t big-name Jarvis Landry making the plays of late, it’s been second-year man Donovan People-Jones. All three of the Browns passing touchdowns to a wide receiver have been to People-Jones. Over his last three games, People-Jones has caught 11 of 14 targets for 257 yards with an average depth of target of 21 yards. He adds the explosive element to this Browns passing attack. My bet is J.C. Jackson draws People-Jones in man and zone coverages.
The loss of Chubb is also felt in the passing games as Mayfield’s numbers drop-off significantly without the talented back. Mayfield’s completion percentage is 73.5% with a TD:INT ratio of 4:0 with Chubb on the field. Without those numbers read 63.6% and 4:3. The loss of Chubb may have disastrous effects throughout all levels of the Browns offense.
The health of the Browns offensive line is something the Pats should look to take advantage of. If Tretter can’t go, rookie Christian Barmore will very much be in line for another disruptive game. The loss of veteran Conklin places a lot of pressure on backup Blake Hance. Hance famously entered a playoff game a year ago after signing earlier in the week. That led to QB Baker Mayfield commenting on their introduction in the locker room before kickoff. While Hance may have had a nice introduction to Mayfield and the team, he may be in for a long introduction to Matt Judon. The Pats will want to bring pressure while keeping Mayfield in the pocket. The advantage here lies with the stellar front seven of the Pats and the veteran savvy of their defensive backfield. The Pats will look to capitalize on the inevitable interception.
Browns Run the Ball
It wasn’t long ago that the Patriots’ run defense was being lambasted for poor effort. Some may have wondered if Hightower had lost a step in his year away. Since, the Pats have held the Jets, Cowboys, Texans, and Panthers under 4 yards per carry. This improvement has revolved around the stellar play of Hightower and fellow linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. The loss of Chubb provides a more significant challenge for the Browns offense against a suddenly surging Patriots defense.
Earlier in the year, the Browns found themselves in a similar situation against the Broncos. All third-string running back D’Ernest Johnson did in that matchup was run for 146 yards on 22 carries. The Browns continue to lead the league with 160.2 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry on the ground. Both are video game numbers. The game will come down to this matchup. If the Pats can limit the Browns rushing attack, their offense will be stuck in the mud throughout Sunday afternoon.
The Browns enjoy motioning a tight end or fullback into the backfield for a late numbers advantage. The Pats will need their big boys up front to eat up blocks without yielding ground to keep their linebackers clean to make the play. The Pats opened the game a week ago with a heavy 3-4 front that featured Lawrence Guy (315 lbs.), Carl Davis (320 lbs.), and Davon Godchaux (311 lbs). Expect the Pats to stay here while occasionally adding Barmore (311 lbs for those wondering) for jumbo packages.
The Pats have been rounding into form after a rough start to the season on special teams. Return man Gunner Olszewski is set to miss the game with a concussion. Last week this forced WR Jakobi Meyers into action on punt returns. JJ Taylor may be in line this week to field kicks.
The Browns have had an inconsistent season from their special teams’ units thus far. K Chase McLaughlin has been solid but the Browns punting units have had issues. P Jamie Gillan ranks last in the league with a 41.8-yard average. The loss of core special teamer Demetric Felton (COVID) may lead a lane open for the Pats to exploit in the return game.
Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski was in elementary school when Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Join that with the lights-out play calling of Steve Belichick (lip licking aside) and Mayfield might not be the only one confused on Sunday. McDaniels has been calling smart and safe plans of late, something that should continue against a Browns defense that doubled their takeaway total last week against the Bengals.
This game may be in the running for the quickest game played Sunday as long as the refs don’t get too involved (the Browns were flagged 10 times last week, average 7 per game). If there was ever a game to bet the under, it’ll be this one. Both teams will look to establish a healthy ground game without much luck while having to play small in the passing game. This is going to be a physical “do your job” 60 minutes and I’ll take Belichick’s boys every day of the week in that kind of matchup. Pats win 20-17.